Jon Wertheim discusses Rafael Nadal's play on grass, the best one-handed backhands, Eugenie Bouchard's slump and more reader questions his weekly Mailbag.
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I watched highlights from Nadal’s matches at Stuttgart and I was amazed at the difference in his play since the clay court season. Perhaps it’s because the grass surface dictated it, but he was much closer to the baseline, added more variety to his game, including many more drop shots, and most tellingly, his backhand consistently landed beyond the surface line which it rarely seemed to do on the red clay. In short, he played a much more offensive game. Do you think this style of play would translate well for him next year on the clay where he seems to have become much too defensive of late? If nothing, else more depth of groundstrokes would keep him from being pulled around like a yo-yo by players like Djokovic. Thanks.
—Scott, Jacksonville, Fla.
• In keeping with one of our persistent themes here, “Plots change quickly in this sport.” Two weeks ago, we were lamenting Nadal, speculating about his deficit of confidence, commenting on that unseemly double-digit ranking. Suddenly….he looks considerably better. He not only took the title in Stuttgart, and not only fought through some tight matches but—as Scott nicely puts it—everything from his court positioning to his finishing shots, suggest that some self-belief has returned. I wouldn’t tip him to win Wimbledon just quite yet. But, unquestionably, this is an uptick in…..
Wait…what’s that you say? Nadal lost in Queen’s Club? To unseeded Alexandr Dolgopolov? In a tight match that Nadal couldn’t close? With a time violation that may have unnerved him? He now has two full weeks to ponder his mortality before Wimbledon? He’s back at a career crossroads.
Stan Wawrinka is deservedly getting kudos and awe for that magnificently powerful one-handed backhand of his. It's the only one-hand backhand that can go toe-to-toe with the great two hand backhands of Djokovic and Nishikori, and actually win its fair share of duels. There are currently several great one-handed backhands on the men's tour: Gasquet, Almagro, Federer, Lopez, Haas, Kohlschreiber and Wawrinka all have beautiful and effective one-hand backhands. For my money, Wawrinka clearly has the most power, but Federer and Haas have more versatility with theirs. Care to rank the one hand backhands mentioned in order as you see them?
• Off-handedly, if you’ll pardon the pun, I’ll go:
One overlooked dimension: who can generate pace off the high bounce? This, of course, was Nadal’s none-too-secret weapon against Federer. It’s also why Djokovic generally succeeds against the one-handers. (His most recent match notwithstanding.) It’s hard to zing a one-hander when the ball is ear-level. Wawrinka is exceptionally good at this.
At what point do we (the tennis world) really start to analyze Eugenie Bouchard's results? There's obviously a lot of press support because of her age and personality, but in the greater scheme of careers her "sophomore" slump is ridiculous. Sharapova's sophomore slump was SF, QF, SF, SF at the four Grand Slams in 2005. She lost to the eventual winner at each. Ten years later, Sharapova has built a phenomenal career but not in the same vein as Serena...if Bouchard is going to back up all of her talk, her breakout year is built on a runner-up finish at one Grand Slam. In short, she's got a long way to go to be in the same discussion as a Sharapova or Henin rather than a Nathalie Tauziat.
—Jordan, Madison, Wis.
• I’ve had just about enough Nathalie Tauziat bashing for one afternoon! I still say that sophomore slumps are very real in tennis. Time and again players have a smashing debut and can’t follow it up. And while Jordan’s point is well taken—maybe the Kingdom of Tennis was too quick to anoint Bouchard as a star—this is really a dramatic plunge. This is a former junior champ and an ascending top five player as recently as a year ago….who is suddenly struggling to win solitary matches.
Right now this is so mental, so beyond playing patterns or serve percentages. This has reached the point where you don’t have to be a fan to hope she gets her groove back. This is no fun for anyone to witness.
It’s that time of year again when pondering over the future of Federer should be at its peak. For the last several years, my recommendation at the halfway point in the Slam calendar has been a simple heuristic. If Federer wins the upcoming Wimbledon, he should consider it his fairytale final Slam and bow out in style (irrespective of whether he announces this on the spot or later). If he doesn’t, he should declare the upcoming U.S. Open his swan song in advance and give us all an opportunity to prepare for watching him one last time. What would you suggest to him and what’s your best guess on where he stands on this issue?
—Jazib Zahir, Lahore, Pakistan
• We stop at nothing to promote simple heuristics. Roger Federer is the second-best player in the world (male division), and he makes deep into eight-figures of income by being Roger Federer. He travels the world. He meets dignitaries. He eats well and lives well. He is surrounded by friends and family. He could never win another match and still go down as an (the?) all-time great, so, in effect, he is playing with house money. So long as his body and mind are willing, I can't imagine why he would stop any time soon.
Gazing into your crystal ball, do you think Borna Coric is the next Djokovic, considering that their games, movement, flexibility, brashness at a young age and even place of origin (from neighboring Balkan countries) are similar? And who do you think has the bigger upside, Coric or Nick Kyrgios?
—Evan, Albany, N.Y.
• My crystal ball is, terminally, in the shop. I like Coric a lot, but he is going to have to work to win consistently. (Djokovic is an easy comparison, but a fitting one.) He doesn’t have the weapons and the big game of, say, a Kyrgios. I’ve heard nothing but praise, though, for Coric’s attitude and self-possession. Coric knows how to win. Now his tennis and his body need to catch up to his professionalism. That beats the heck out of the alternative.
I like Kyrgios and am not put off by his antics. We’re all for color and, inasmuch as his breaches of decorum are crimes, they are the victimless variety. The player who’s really risen, though, is Thanasi Kokkinakis. “He is Sampras to Kyrgios’ Agassi,” as one Aussie tennis insider put it.
Why don't any of the grass court tournaments in continental Europe hold night matches? I understand that the tournaments in England refrain in order to keep the tradition of Wimbledon, but I believe that the tournaments on the mainland have a different identity and could differentiate themselves a bit.
• Interesting suggestion. Obviously there’s a cost/benefit factor. One reason to install lights: you can hold additional night session once it gets dark. But in the summer months, the sun sets so late, it doesn't make sense. In Halle, Germany, for instance, it remains light until 9:30 tonight.
From your previous Mailbag: “One irony/twist of clay court tennis: despite the rejection of technology, the players essentially have unlimited challenges." And French Open officials have the right of refusal to honor any of those challenges. That's another completely unfair part of the French Open. At least with Hawk-Eye, officials are required to honor the challenge.
• Good point. Though it's rare for the chair to decline a player’s request to check a mark.
With grass court season starting, who are your early picks for Wimbledon? I think Madison Keys will win it. She got to the last four in Australia. And grass is her best surface as well. I think she will win it.
—Darren Walker, London
• After Serena’s performance in France—winning the title on her least favorite surface while suffering from illness—I don’t know how you pick against her. But, yes, Madison Keys is a player to watch on the women’s side. Her big game translates well to grass. (If it wasn’t for an adductor injury, she was on pace to make a deep run in 2014.) She is coming off success at the first major of 2015 and some motivating disappointment at the second.
Just curious: What is the longest set played since Isner-Mahut went 70-68 at Wimbledon?
—B. Riden, New York
• My mole (which is to say, Greg Sharko) tells me:
“Since the 2010 Isner/Mahut match the longest match was Nadal vs. Djokovic in 2012 Australian Open Final which was 5 hours 53 minutes. The longest set score was Isner vs. Mathieu at 2012 Roland Garros and Benneteau vs. Bagnis at 2014 Roland Garros both 18-16 in the fifth set.”
• You want podcasts, we got podcasts. Lindsay Davenport was our most recent guest and she was, characteristically, terrific.
• Stumbled upon this documentary of the 1981 French Open that is a fantastic way to spend two hours:
• Tickets are on sale for the Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies.
• The USTA announced that 2015 NCAA singles champions Jamie Loeb and Ryan Shane headline the top American collegians named to the 2015 USTA Collegiate National Team:
Mackenzie McDonald, UCLA, Soph., Piedmont, Calif.
Noah Rubin, Wake Forest, Fr., Rockville Centre, N.Y.*
Ryan Shane, Virginia, Jr., Falls Church, Va.
Brooke Austin, Florida, Fr., Indianapolis, Ind.
Jennifer Brady, UCLA, Soph., Boca Raton, Fla.*
Julia Elbaba, Virginia, Jr., Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Jamie Loeb, North Carolina, Soph., Ossining, N.Y.
*Player has indicated he/she will turn pro.
• Non-tennis but this is a great read and I figured I’d pass on.
• From the WTA: We asked the WTA Rising Stars to submit their best DubSmash and Vicky Duval (USA), Karolina Pliskova (CZE), Monica Puig (PUR), Heather Watson (GBR), Carina Witthoeft (GER) and Laura Robson (GBR) were up to the challenge.
Get ready for #WTAdubsmash! WTA Rising Stars showing off their skills!! Vote for the best--> http://wtatenn.is/xKEa45Posted by WTA on Tuesday, June 16, 2015
• On the occasion of Steffi Graf’s 46th birthday.
• Tennis Channel's French Open coverage set new ratings highs for the network, both in average and single-day tune in. The channel's live tournament coverage saw an average 0.72 household coverage-area rating, up 33 percent vs. 2014's 0.54 average. The average 175,000 households in Nielsen metered markets across two weeks was the highest in Tennis Channel's history in Paris. In addition to live-match tune in, total-day (6 a.m.-3 a.m.) network ratings increased 33 percent in 2015, to 0.36 from 0.27 last year's French Open coverage.
• Enjoyed this piece about Magnus Norman: Reflections from Magnus after French Open.
• The USTA announced that the final piece of steel has been set in for the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium. In all, 5,000 tons of steel were needed to complete the massive project. The roof will be fully operational for the 2016 US Open.
• Megan Fernandez of Indianapolis has LLS: Feliciano Lopez and Armie Hammer